Wisdom’s Lover: The Philosopher and the Poet

In those eloquent passages of the Phaedrus on the divine madness of prophets, mystics, poets, and lovers, Plato’s mentor Socrates with subtle irony and elliptic elegance, his own madness notwithstanding,  once offered this advice to the poets:

If anyone comes to the gates of poetry and expects to become an adequate poet by acquiring expert knowledge of the subject without the Muses’ madness, he will fail, and his self-controlled verses will be eclipsed by the poetry of men who have been driven out of their minds. 1

(Translated by A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff)

That this divine madness was a divine gift not to be confused with physical disease the ancients knew well. As E.R. Dodds in his excellent study The Greeks and the Irrational reminds us it is not clear in what this “given” element consists; but if we consider the occasions on which the Iliad-poet himself appeals to the Muses for help, we shall see that it falls on the side of content and not of form.2

The idea of poetic knowledge coming as a reliable gift of the Muses is central to poetry – as Dodds reminds us, for in an age which possessed no written documents, where should first-hand evidence be found? Just as the truth about the future would be attained only if man were in touch with a knowledge wider than his own, so the truth about the past could be preserved only on a like condition. Its human repositories, the poets, had (like the seers) their technical resources, their professional training; but vision of the past, like insight into the future, remained a mysterious faculty, only partially under its owner’s control, and dependent in the last resort on divine grace. By that grace poet and seer alike enjoyed a knowledge denied to other men. Dodds mentions that it is recent scholars who have emphasized that it is to Democritus, rather than to Plato, that we must assign the credit of having introduced into literary theory this conception of the poet as a man set apart from common humanity by an abnormal inner experience, and of poetry as a revelation apart from reason and above reason. Maybe this is another reason Plato hated Democritus and never even mentioned that great progenitor of materialism. *(Kindle Locations 1606-1609)

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